Wang Yang-ming and the democratization of sagehood

To Acquire Wisdom: The Way of Wang Yang-ming

By Julia Ching

New York: Columbia University Press. 1976.

Things were looking very bad for Wang Yang-ming.  Midway through his career as a successful minister, he intervened to save some people unjustly imprisoned.  Instead of saving them, he was imprisoned himself, flogged and sent into exile, where he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.  There he was, in a frontier region of the Chinese empire, a desolate, tropical hole infested with serpents, malaria and outlaws fleeing from justice.  He thought he’d never make it back to civilization, and had a coffin made for himself out of stone, which he looked at nonstop while sitting, meditating, day and night.

It was there, deep in meditation one night, that Yang-ming received enlightenment.  He leaped up, waking those around him, telling them: “I have finally understood that my human nature is quite adequate for the task of achieving sagehood.”

Julia Ching’s book on the life and philosophy of Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) takes you right into the heart and soul of Ming dynasty China.    This, in itself, makes it a good read.  But what makes it special is the penetrating insight it offers into the revisionist Neo-Confucian philosophy he formulated several centuries after the height of the classic Neo-Confucian age during the Song dynasty.  This philosophy is not some historic relic of mere academic interest.  Far from it.  Wang Yang-ming’s philosophy is more fresh and relevant today than ever, and is increasingly validated by recent findings in neuroscience and systems biology.

It’s fitting that Yang-ming’s enlightenment occurred in the middle of his political vicissitudes, because for Yang-ming, knowledge and action are one and the same thing.  For him, the idea of pure knowledge, separated from experience, is nonsense.  As Ching puts it, “One can become a sage only by acting in a sagely way, and this action itself is knowledge.”  On the flip side, as Yang-ming says, “One can only know pain after having experienced it.”

And just as knowledge and experience are inseparable, so sagehood – the Neo-Confucian version of enlightenment – is not some distant, transcendent goal.  Rather, sagehood exists within every one of us.  You could say that Wang Yang-ming promoted the democratization of sagehood:

the ideal of sagehood still remained the reserved goal of a few selected scholars, who always risked the danger of being considered mad (k’uang) for daring to have such an ambition.  It was against this situation that Yang-ming revolted, and, in revolting, would present his own discoveries – that every man not only can be a sage, but possesses within himself all the means necessary to become one, and that sagehood is not a remote, impersonal ideal, but a concrete goal, well within reach, a state of mind, self-transcending and yet to be made immanent, to become internalized…

Sounds great, but how do we get there?  Wang Yang-ming builds on the idea of the ancient Confucian scholar, Mencius, that human nature is naturally good, but tends to get corrupted by environmental influences.  “Sagehood,” in Yang-ming’s opinion, “is a quality with which every man is born.  To become a sage is simply to recover one’s original innocence, to take over one’s self completely by recapturing one’s pristine state of mind and of heart.”  If you are able to get to that place, there is a joy you can experience from that inner “peace of mind-and-heart,” at which point you can truly say: “All things are present in me.  I have no greater joy than to find, when I look deep into myself, that I am true to myself.”

But don’t confuse being true to yourself with being self-centered.  Far from it.  One of the great revelations of Neo-Confucian thought, which would be so valuable to us in the West if we could only learn it, is the ultimate interdependence of self and other.  In Wang Yang-ming’s case, this insight took the form of the phrase hsin chi li, which may be roughly translated as “the human mind-and-heart are ultimately identical with the organizing principles of nature.”

As I’ve described elsewhere on this blog, modern scientific thought is beginning to describe this mysterious Neo-Confucian view in rigorous, technical terms, as in this description of complex adaptive systems by Princeton evolutionary biologist Simon Levin:

Ecosystems, and indeed the global biosphere, are prototypical examples of complex adaptive systems, in which macroscopic system properties … emerge from interactions among components, and may feed back to influence the subsequent development of those interactions…  Examples of complex adaptive systems abound in biology. A developing organism, an individual learning to cope, a maturing ecosystem, and the evolving biosphere all provide cases in point.[1]

So, as you gradually accumulate an understanding of the external world, this can lead you to a better understanding of your own nature… and vice versa.

By following the implications of this interconnection, and through Wang Yang-ming’s approach to experiencing it, not just intellectually but in your gut, it’s possible to arrive at a realization of the ultimate unity between each of us and the world around us.  This naturally leads to what Yang-ming called jen, an overflowing sense of love between humanity and the natural world.  For Yang-ming, as Ching describes it, “the world of nature and of human society are fundamentally one, and unity with other men extends itself to unity with birds and beasts and the whole cosmos.”  In his own words:

Everything from ruler, minister, husband, wife, and friends to mountains, rivers, heavenly and earthly spirits, birds, beasts, and plants, all should be truly loved in order that the unity may be reached [through] my humanity (jen).  Then will my clear virtue be completely made manifest; then will I really form one body with Heaven and Earth and the myriad things.

At a time when our global greed and plundering of the earth’s resources is causing millions of barrels of oil to spew out of the bottom of the ocean, enveloping pristine lands and innocent sea creatures in a black cloak of death, if only more people would stop and consider this view of our relationship to nature.  Ultimately, we’re all one and the same.  As Wang Yang-ming put it in one of the beautiful poems appended to the book:

Swimming in the depths, the fish are passing on words of power;
Perched on the branches, birds are uttering the true Tao.
Do not say that instinctive desires are not mysteries of Heaven:
I know that my body is one with the ten thousand things.
People talk endlessly about rites and music;
But who will sweep away the heaps of dust from the blue sky?

And who will sweep away the heaps of tar balls from the Gulf coast?


[1] Levin, S. A. (1998). “Ecosystems and the Biosphere as Complex Adaptive Systems.” Ecosystems, 1998(1), 431-436.

Life as an ontological surprise

The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology

By Hans Jonas

Evanston: Northwestern University Press.  1966/2001.

I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog that our Western conceptualization of the universe could gain a lot from the Chinese Neo-Confucian view that sees reality arising from a confluence of li and ch’i, the organizing principles of nature (li) being applied to the raw energy/matter (ch’i).  In this approach, if you look at a candle, the ch’i comes and goes every moment in the substance of the wick, candle wax and oxygen burning up, but the form of the flame, the li, is what remains stable.

In his book, The Phenomenon of Life, Hans Jonas, a 20th century existential philosopher (a pupil of Martin Heidegger), never mentions Chinese thought, but his approach to matter and form resembles the Neo-Confucian approach so closely that it offers an example of how certain Western philosophical paths form a natural bridge to the Chinese tradition.

When considering life, as opposed to inanimate objects, Jonas tells us, “form becomes the essence, matter the accident.”  “In the realm of the lifeless,” he explains, form is no more than a changing composite state, an accident, of enduring matter.”  But when you look at “the living form,” the reverse holds true:

the changing material contents are states of its enduring identity, their multiplicity marking the range of its effective unity.  In fact, instead of saying that the living form is a region of transit for matter, it would be truer to say that the material contents in their succession are phases of transit for the self-continuation of the form.

This approach to understanding life is fundamentally at odds with the Western dualistic and reductionist view, and so it’s not surprising that Jonas’ book, viewed as “the pivotal book of Jonas’s intellectual career,” spends much of its time attacking reductionism, tracing its ancient roots from Orphism all the way through to modern renderings such as August Weismann’s dualist distinction of germline from somatic cells and the Neoplatonism of some modern mathematicians.

Jonas offers a strikingly clear narrative of how  Greek Platonic dualism, which formed the ontological basis for Christian cosmology, set the groundwork for modern reductionism by draining the spirit out of the material world.  He explains how concentrating the sense of the sacred into the eternal realm left a “denuded substratum of all reality,” which is then viewed as a “field of inanimate masses and forces.”  And he emphasizes the central importance of this dynamics in the structure of Western thought, saying:

In more ways than one, the rise and long ascendancy of dualism are among the most decisive events in the mental history of the race.  What matters for our context is that, while it held sway, and in an otherwise varied career, dualism continued to drain the spiritual elements off the physical realm – until, when its tide at last receded, it left in its wake a world strangely denuded of such arresting attributes.

Jonas sees the crucial moment occurring in the seventeenth century.  Christian dualism had already “drain(ed) nature of her spiritual and vital attributes,” leaving “the new metaphysic of science” to seal the deal.    In company with many other historians of philosophy, Jonas sees Descartes as putting the final nail into nature’s vital parts, describing how “Descartes’ division of substance into res cogitans and res extensa… provided the metaphysical charter for a purely mechanistic and quantitative picture of the natural world.”

Other historians of philosophy have traced a similar path, but Jonas’ book really comes to life when he offers an alternative worldview, which is where he begins to sound intriguingly like a Neo-Confucianist.  Jonas describes life in almost poetic terms, describing how, “in living things, nature springs an ontological surprise,” where “systems of matter” no longer exist by the “mere concurrence of the forces that bind their parts together, but in virtue of themselves for the sake of themselves, and continually sustained by themselves.”

This interpretation of life as an emergent phenomenon is a philosophical forerunner of current views espoused by leading thinkers in biology and complexity theory, such as Stuart Kauffman, Evan Thompson and Ursula Goodenough, among others; and in fact it was Thompson’s book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, reviewed on this blog, that originally alerted me to Jonas’ writings.

As Thompson noted in his book, Jonas deserves credit for highlighting the “all-pervasiveness of metabolism within the living system.”  Most of us think of metabolism as something that happens when we eat, an important part of life but not exactly the foundational concept.  However, as Jonas argues:

The exchange of matter with the environment is not a peripheral activity engaged in by a persistent core: it is the total mode of continuity (self-continuation) of the subject of life itself… the system itself is wholly and continuously a result of its metabolizing activity.

This is the crucial differences, Jonas explains, between a living system and a machine, and underlines the inadequacy of any scientific approach that views living organisms as just very complicated “machines” – the core metaphor of the reductionist view.  “It is inappropriate,” Jonas tells us, “to liken the organism to a machine,” and here’s why:

[M]etabolism is more than a method of power generation, or, food is more than fuel: in addition to, and more basic than, providing kinetic energy for the running of the machine … its role is to build up originally and replace continually the very parts of the machine.  Metabolism thus is the constant becoming of the machine itself – and this becoming itself is a performance of the machine: but for such performance there is no analogue in the world of machines…

Following on the implications of this, Jonas concludes that “the organism must appear as a function of metabolism rather than metabolism as a function of the organism.”  Which takes us back to the li and ch’i of Neo-Confucianism.  Metabolism can be viewed as a process of changing the organization of matter, cell by cell, molecule by molecule, breaking apart the prior organization and reorganizing the molecules into a form that optimizes and becomes the organism, on a continuous, dynamic basis.  Viewed in this way, it’s the li, the organizing principles, that define the organism, and the matter/energy, the ch’i, is merely the raw material being used to maintain the li.  Or, to put it in Jonas’ words, the organism is a function of metabolism.

Jonas then ventures deeper into the implications of this reversal of traditional Western priorities.  He shows how the existence of an organism leads to the emergence of teleology, an underlying sense of purpose.  Traditional Western scientists steer clear of notions of teleology, fearing that it smacks either of Aristotle or Christian theology.  But in fact, as Jonas makes clear, teleology is the logical result of the unique dynamics of living systems:

But there is always the purposiveness of organism as such and its concern in living: effective already in all vegetative tendency, awakening to primordial awareness in the dim reflexes, the responding irritability of lowly organisms; more so in urge and effort and anguish of animal life endowed with motility and sense-organs; reaching self-transparency in consciousness, will and thought of man: all these being inward aspects of the teleological side in the nature of ‘matter.’

Because of this universal characteristic of teleology in life, Jonas concludes that “life can be known only by life.”  “We poor mortals” have an advantage, Jonas tells us, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, over the Neoplatonic God existing as an eternal, never-changing idea of perfection:

Happening to be living material things ourselves, we have in our self-experience, as it were, peepholes into the inwardness of substance, thereby having an idea (or the possibility of having an idea) not only of how reality is spread and interacts in extensity, but of how it is to be real and to act and to be acted upon.

This has profound implications for what it means to “know something.”  Knowledge of any living system can never be a purely abstract conception.  True knowledge involves an integration of our minds and bodies, our conceptual and our animate consciousness.  Not surprisingly, alien as this view is to Western thought, the Chinese long ago had a word for it: tiren.  In another review on this blog, I’ve quoted Chinese scholar Donald Munro on the meaning of this word:

Tiren means to understand something personally, with one’s body and mind.  This knowledge becomes qualitatively different from knowledge that does not involve personal experience…  Embodiment is a combination of cognition … and empathic projection of the self to the object.

For Western reductionist thinkers, life might indeed be, in Jonas’s words, an ontological surprise.  But I have a feeling that, for Chinese Neo-Confucianists, Jonas’ discussion of “the phenomenon of life” would be no surprise at all.  For them, the surprise would be the reductionist view of the world that only measures the ch’i, remaining blithely oblivious to the fact that the li even exists.

China’s greatest gift to the world: its philosophy.

A Chinese Ethics for the New Century

By Donald J. Munro

Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press.  2005.

With all the noise about how China is rapidly becoming a global superpower of the 21st century, it’s ironic that one of China’s greatest contributions to the human race has been utterly ignored.  I’m referring to the values and philosophical constructs of traditional Chinese thought, from their first flowering with the names of Lao-Tzu and Confucius, to their great fruition in the Neo-Confucian system of Chu Hsi in the 11th century.

Donald Munro, a highly regarded authority on Chinese culture, is trying to change all that.  In his book, A Chinese Ethics for the New Century, Munro collects some lectures and other essays around a central theme: that traditional Chinese thought is consistent with some of the most recent findings in modern science about the human condition, and that our modern world can learn a lot from millennia of accumulated Chinese cultural wisdom.

Munro briefly reviews some of the findings of modern evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, and relates these to central themes in Chinese philosophy, identifying the principle of an innate human sense of morality as the most important of these linkages.  In recent decades, many empirical studies of human behavior have converged on the theory that, back in Paleolithic hunter-gatherer days, humans evolved an instinctual set of social responses encompassing what we call empathy, altruism and a sense of fairness.[1] This is a radical change from traditional Western thought, which posits a natural state for humans that, in the infamous words of Hobbes, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  In the received Western tradition, we humans are saved from this horrible fate either by the imposition of Christian values or by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps through the development of social institutions that control our violent nature.

In contrast to the Western view, as Munro points out, these recent scientific findings are more consistent with the dominant traditional Chinese view of human nature, which is expressed most powerfully in the teachings of Mencius (c. 372 – 289 BCE).  Mencius is famous for arguing that humans are naturally good and that when we act badly, it’s because of external factors that have caused damage to our original nature.  He gives an example of a person seeing an infant falling into a well, when no-one else is around, whose immediate instinct would be to rescue the child from drowning.  In Mencius’ words:

This reaction would not arise because this person wanted to get into the good graces of the child’s parents, nor because of a desire to be praised by their fellow villagers or friends, nor because they were loath to get a bad reputation [for not having helped].  From this it can be seen that a person lacking the heart of compassion is inhuman… and a person lacking the heart of right and wrong is inhuman…[2]

For centuries, Western intellectuals have dismissed this view as mere wishful thinking, but this is exactly where modern science has shown Mencius to be right.  In fact, modern neuroscientists have identified a specific part of the brain – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex – which, when it’s damaged, may lead a person to become what we call a psychopath.[3]

Munro touches on some other similar linkages between the Chinese view of ethics and Western science.  For example, one of the most important recent findings of Western neuroscience is the fact that emotions are embodied.  When we refer to someone’s actions as “disgusting,” this is not just a metaphor: studies have shown that the same neural pathways and facial responses are activated by both physically and morally disgusting sights.[4] In this context, Mencius’ statement (quoted by Munro) that ‘Reason and righteousness please my heart in the same way meat pleases my palate’ takes on a new significance.

This Chinese sense of embodiment has a great deal to offer the West.  One of the greatest contrasts between Chinese and Western thought is the lack of dualism in the Chinese tradition.  The Chinese make no fundamental distinction between body and soul, which is one of the cornerstones of Western thought.  Modern neuroscientists and cognitive philosophers, such as Antonio Damasio and George Lakoff, have been demonstrating the fallacy of this aspect of the Western tradition in recent decades, and it’s remarkable how closely their approaches match the mainstream thought of classical Chinese thinking.  Given that, in Munro’s words, “China has a twenty-five hundred year history of writers focusing on moral psychology and human nature,” there is a tremendous amount we can learn from that history.  One notable example is the Chinese word “tiren” which refers to the understanding of something with both body and mind.  Munro describes how the great Neo-Confucian philosopher, Chu Hsi (Zhu Xi), used this term:

Zhu conceived of the experience of knowing as deeply affecting the entire self.  The additional image that he used to expand the scope of the concept is that of a skeletal framework or a body (ti).  When used as a verb in the context of relating the self to things, ti means to make things part of the body or of the self – in short, to embody them.  Tiren means to understand something personally, with one’s body and mind.  This knowledge becomes qualitatively different from knowledge that does not involve personal experience.  Investigating things goes beyond looking at static objects – it means getting involved with the affairs of the world.  Embodiment is a combination of cognition … and empathic projection of the self to the object.

Here, in one key Chinese word, is much that Damasio, Lakoff and others have been arguing for decades.  Knowledge is not just the domain of the mind; it is the result of an embodied interaction with the world around us.  The implications of this go far.  For example, philosopher Evan Thompson has written extensively on the linkage of neuroscience and 20th century European phenomenology, building on “the realization that one’s consciousness of oneself as an embodied individual in the world is founded on empathy – on one’s empathic cognition of others, and others’ empathic cognition of oneself.”[5] That thought process – still fairly radical in the West – is mainstream in the Chinese tradition.

And the implications of this thought process go even further.  Just as Chinese thought eschews the Western split between body and soul, so it also blurs the fixed barriers constructed in Western thought between self and other.  If understanding something requires an empathic projection of the self to the object, then what happens to the dividing line?  In some Chinese traditions, that dividing line virtually disappears.

Munro touches on this when he quotes another Neo-Confucian philosopher, Cheng Yi, on how the notion of the self can expand to everything out there:  “When one has no selfish subjectivity, there will be no occasion when he is acted on in which he will not respond to every stimulus with understanding.”  There is really no limit to where this notion can go, as Cheng Yi points out: “The humane man regards heaven, earth, and all things as one body; there is nothing not himself.”

Munro’s book opens a door to a vast universe of learnings that we in the modern world can acquire from traditional Chinese thought.  As I’ve described elsewhere on this blog in detail, I believe there is a fundamental link between the principles of self-organization described in modern complexity science and the Neo-Confucian concept of “the li” – the dynamical principals of our universe.  A thorough application of traditional Chinese thought to our scientific world could not only transcend the Western splits between body vs. soul and self vs. other, but could create a conceptual bridge between science and spirituality, two dimensions of experience that have long been viewed as separate in the Western worldview.

I believe that we in the West could gain hugely not just from “a Chinese ethics for the new century” but also from a Chinese cosmology for the new millennium.  Munro has done us all a favor in opening what I hope will become a floodgate for infusing Western reductionist thought with a Chinese view of the universe that can greatly enhance our ability to manage the new challenges of our global civilization.


[1] For a good recent summary, see Fehr, E., and Fischbacher, U. (2003). “The nature of human altruism.” Nature, 425, 785-791.

[2] Quoted in Slingerland, E. (2003). Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China, New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] See, for example, Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York: Penguin Books, or Krueger, F. et al. (2009). “The neural bases of key competencies of emotional intelligence.” PNAS, 106(52), 22486-22491.

[4] See Rozin, P., Haidt, J., and Fincher, K. (2009). “From Oral to Moral.” Science, 323(27 February 2009) and Chapman, H. A., Kim, D. A., Susskind, J. M., and Anderson, A. K. (2009). “In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust.” Science, 323, 1222-1226.

[5] Thompson E. (2001).  “Empathy & Consciousness.”  Journal of Consciousness Studies 8 (5-7), 1-32.

Transcendence or Immanence? You can choose one but not both…

Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization

By Huston Smith

Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.  1982/2003.

Huston Smith is one of the most respected spiritual thinkers of our time.  Having been born in China to Methodist missionaries in 1919, he practiced different Eastern religions for several decades and wrote one of the few religious bestsellers of the 20th century, called The World’s Religions, in addition to many other well received books on religious beliefs.  So it is with some trepidation that I take issue with this great man on a fundamental matter of spiritual thought.

In Beyond the Postmodern Mind, as well as other more recent writings, Smith argues strenuously against the soulless nature of modern scientific materialism, positing a transcendent meaning to life that in his view, science “cannot handle.”  As I’ve described in other posts, I wholeheartedly agree in his invective against scientific reductionism, although I think his attack on science errs in equating reductionism with the whole scientific enterprise.  But other thoughtful scientists have already locked horns with Smith on that topic, so I won’t go there.[1]

In this post, I suggest instead that the fundamental structure of Smith’s spiritual cosmology is incoherent.  Smith eloquently describes a universe where meaning is both transcendent and immanent.  But I believe that if you want to conceive of your spiritual experience in a coherent way, you can choose transcendence or you can choose immanence.  But you can’t choose both.

In making my case, I’m not only going against Smith.  I’m also by implication criticizing the revered thinker, Aldous Huxley, whose book The Perennial Philosophy, a collection of mystical writings taken from different faiths around the globe, has gained enthusiastic advocates worldwide since its publication in 1945, and is viewed by many as a bible for ecumenical, liberated spiritual thought.

Smith himself is one of Huxley’s greatest advocates, quoting Huxley’s definition of the “perennial philosophy” as “the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being,” adding that he “cannot imagine a better brief summation.”  Later on in his book, Smith follows Huxley’s use of the two terms “immanent” and “transcendent” in the same sentence, stating that:

Looking up from planes that are lower, God is radically transcendent…; looking down, from heights that human vision (too) can attain to varying degrees, God is absolutely immanent.

Aldous Huxley: conflates “transcendent” and “immanent” in his "Perennial Philosophy".

The “perennial philosophy” advocated by Smith and Huxley is an attractive proposition from an ecumenical perspective, an enhancer of global spiritual integration.  The use of these two terms together was, I surmise, a deliberate choice by both writers to conflate the “transcendent” spirituality of monotheistic and Vedic religion with the “immanent” realization of East Asian traditions, thereby proposing a sense of mystical Oneness that embraces the metaphysical truths of all the world’s major religious traditions.  While I fervently support that goal, I believe that the conflation of these two concepts conceals some inconvenient but fundamental differences between them.

Let’s explore the meaning and etymology of both of these two terms before we go any further.  In a paper called Transcendence East and West, professor of comparative philosophy David Loy notes how the Latin trans + scendere means to climb over or rise above something.  Transcendence, he explains, is “that which abstracts us from the given world by providing a theoretical perspective on it.”[2] Implicit in this concept is the notion that spiritual meaning exists somewhere “up there” above worldly, material things, in a pure, eternal dimension.  Perhaps the ultimate statement of spiritual transcendence comes from this passage in the Katha Upanishad:

Higher than the senses are the objects of sense.
Higher than the objects of sense is the mind;
And higher than the mind is the intellect (buddhi).
Higher than the intellect is the Great Self (Atman).
Higher than the Great is the Unmanifest (avyakta).
Higher than the Unmanifest is the Person.
Higher than the Person there is nothing at all.
That is the goal.  That is the highest course.[3]

Now let’s turn to our other word, “immanence.”  The respected neurologist and Zen Buddhist, James Austin, notes that this word comes from the Latin immanere, to remain in.  In contrast to “transcendence,” “immanence” implies that spiritual meaning exists continually within us and all around us.  It’s there for the taking.  We just need to notice it.  Austin uses the word “immanence” as the descriptive term for the “deep realization” of kensho (the Zen term for a moment of enlightenment) that “ultimate reality is right here, in all things, and not elsewhere, or distant from us.”  In this moment of enlightenment, Austin describes, “no miracle is greater than just this.”  He quotes a famous saying from an old Zen teacher: “If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion.”[4]

What a mix up!  How can spiritual meaning be derived from “up there” in one tradition, from “down here” in another tradition, and from all of the above in the “perennial tradition”?  A sensitive reader might be forgiven at this point for thinking: “Look, the words might be different, but the feeling is the same.  They’re all talking about a special moment of great meaning.  That’s an experience we humans can all share.  So let’s not get hung up on semantics.”  This is a viewpoint that I myself hold, when it comes to those rare moments of enlightenment we might be fortunate enough to experience.  But in this case, the difference I’m highlighting is far more than semantics, and here’s why.

The celebrated philosopher, Walter Stace, in an analysis of mystical states of mind experienced by people across many cultures, concludes that while the experience itself may have common elements among all humanity, the “many and varied conceptions” that accompany these experiences are “the products of post-experiential cultural and religious categorization and are not inherent in the experiences themselves.”[5] In other words, how people interpret their mystical experiences is structured by their foundational cultural assumptions.  This doesn’t for one instance take away from the validity of those experiences; but precisely because of the power these experiences have on the individual’s psyche long after the event, the interpretation can be crucially important to that individual’s future assessment of meaning and will both reflect and reinforce the underlying metaphysical constructs that inform that culture’s values.

In fact, I believe that the traditional Western, monotheistic-oriented view of transcendence is one of the most important aspects of a fundamentally dualistic view of the universe that has pervaded Western thought for two and a half millennia.  We see it emerging in the Western tradition as early as the Presocratic thinker Anaxagoras (c.500-428 B.C.), who posited a pure Mind which “is infinite and self-ruling and is mixed with nothing but is alone by itself.”[6] This notion got taken up by Plato for whom, in the words of the great classicist Francis Cornford, “the immortal thinking soul, which alone knows reality, is sharply distinguished from the body, with which are associated the lower faculties of sense, emotion, and desire.”[7] Then, with the rise of Christianity, we see the merging of a Hebrew omnipotent God with Plato’s body/soul division, to construct a universe where the cosmic dualism of an eternal God above ruling a material world below is paralleled by a human dualism of an eternal soul ruling the mortal body.

But as we all know, the soul’s rule of the body is somewhat problematic.  No-one has described the tortuous tensions arising from this search for transcendent meaning better than the Apostle Paul, who put it this way:

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?[8]

Apostle Paul: defined the tortuous spiritual conflict arising from dualism.

For nearly two millennia, countless millions of people pursuing spiritual transcendence have suffered the conundrum defined by Paul.  This dualistic division of the universe then took a more modern incarnation after Descartes merged the Christian “soul” and the newly ascendant notion of “mind” into one entity, the res cogitans, utterly separate from the body, creating a “theory of mind and thought so influential that its main tenets are still widely held and have barely begun to be reevaluated.”[9]

In a cross-cultural analysis of views of transcendence, Professor Guoping Zhao has noted the potentially harmful effects of pursuing transcendence as a target external to our own physical existence:

What is particular about the modern notion of transcendence is that it is a transcendence of us, but at the same time, it is also transcendence from us, from the very material that constitutes human experience. It is this disconnected form of transcendence, I suggest, that makes our pursuit of transcendence at times unexpectedly harmful to human well-being.  For when transcendence means “disconnected from” the material nature of humanity, it detaches the modern construction of humans from everyday human experience and the deeply felt and commonly shared human sentiments.[10]

Here, Zhao has noted the spiritual harm that can be caused to the individual by seeking transcendence from something outside his/her own embodied experience.  In addition, I think this sense of transcendence as other-worldly has led to what philosopher Hans Jonas has called “among the most decisive events in the mental history of the race,” where our dualistic view has “continued to drain the spiritual elements off the physical realm – until, when its tide at last receded, it left in its wake a world strangely denuded of such arresting attributes.”[11] If spiritual value is derived from an eternal heavenly dimension, then ipso facto it is not intrinsic to the trees, rivers and animals of the natural world.  In a grand irony, the transcendent view has been partially responsible for the very scientific materialism that Smith so derides, one that has led to a desacralized earth, where the spiritual resonance of the natural world has been transformed into the economic value of geological resources and “ecosystem services.”

Thus it is that when Smith and others pursue spiritual meaning as transcendent, they leave the natural world around them denuded of meaning, fair game to those who would view their environment as resources with value calculated in dollars and cents.  On the other hand, when spiritual meaning is realized as immanent, the gap between the sacred and the scientific begins to get blurred, even disappear.  Biologist Ursula Goodenough describes her awe of nature in terms reminiscent of Austin’s description of kensho, when “no miracle is greater than just this”:

As a cell biologist immersed in [a deep understanding of, and admiration for, the notes and the strings and the keys of life] I experience the same kind of awe and reverence when I contemplate the structure of an enzyme or the flowing of a signal-transduction cascade as when I watch the moon rise or stand in front of a Mayan temple.  Same rush, same rapture.[12]

The notion that spiritual meaning is immanent – ever present and all around us – is a liberating one in a world increasingly dominated by the scientific enterprise.  From this perspective, spirituality doesn’t have to flee from the material world into a construction of another eternal dimension.  Spirituality doesn’t have to fight a rearguard action against ever more intrusive scientific insights into the forces of evolution or the neural correlates of consciousness.  Rather, spirituality can embrace scientific illumination as yet another source of wonder, another means by which the infinite complexity of the natural world manifests itself to the human mind.


[1] See Goodenough, U. (2001). “Engaging Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters.” Zygon, 36(2), 201-206; Pigliucci, M. (2010). “The Place of Science.” eSkeptic, March 10, 2010.

[2] Loy, D. (1993). “Transcendence East and West.” Man and World, 26(4), 403-427.

[3] Quoted in Barnes, M. H. (2000). Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science, New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Austin, J. H. (2009). Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[5] Cited in Roth, H. D. (1999). Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, New York: Columbia University Press.

[6] Quoted in McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press.

[7] Cornford, F. M. (1912/2004). From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation, New York: Dover Publications.

[8] Romans 7:22-24

[9] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books.

[10] Zhao, G. (2009). “Two Notions of Transcendence: Confucian Man and Modern Subject.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 36(3:September 2009), 391-407.

[11] Jonas, H. (1966/2001). The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

[12] Goodenough, U. (1998). The Sacred Depths of Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.

Exploring the Li of Consciousness

Rhythms of the Brain

By György Buzsáki

New York: Oxford University Press.  2006.

György Buzsáki’s book is viewed by the academic press as a “must read,” particularly for “neuroscientists looking to get an up-to-date and challenging exposition of many of the big questions.”  I’m sure that’s true.  But I view it somewhat differently.  I see Rhythms of the Brain as one of the increasing number of modern scientific descriptions of the authenticity and power of the classical Chinese concept of the li.

Now what could a book on the brain by a leading neuroscientist possibly have to do with traditional Chinese thought?  Readers of this blog will know that “the li” is a Neo-Confucian concept of the dynamic organizing principles of nature.  In traditional Chinese thought, Nature is composed of two interrelated principles: ch’i, which we can loosely translate as matter/energy; and li, which are the organizing dynamics by which the ch’i is manifested.  There’s no ch’i without li, and there’s no li without ch’i.

Now let’s fast forward a thousand years to Buzsáki’s book.  The physical composition – the ch’i – of the brain is staggering on its own account.  Buzsáki tells us how the human brain has about “100 billion neurons with an estimated 200 trillion contacts between them.”  But what makes the brain even more amazing is how it can organize these trillions of connections to cause us to think and feel, to be aware of the world and of ourselves, to be able to sit here and read these words.  That’s where the rhythms of the brain – the li of consciousness – play their part.

Think about it this way: the moment someone dies, their brain still exists, but there’s no longer a mind.  If you freeze their brain instantaneously, you could theoretically trace every one of those 200 trillion contacts.  But all you’d be looking at would be a complicated tangle of protoplasm.  The ch’i would still be there, but the dynamic, pulsing rhythms, the li, would be gone.

Buzsáki’s book is all about the li of the human brain: the rhythms that form the complex, self-organized fractal patterns that come together to create the emergent phenomenon of consciousness.  Buzsáki’s analysis utilizes the crucial concept of the brain as a complex adaptive system exhibiting a “nonlinear relationship between constituent components.”  As such, the rules that apply to self-organized systems elsewhere in the universe – in cells, ant colonies, fish swarms, global climate, (to name but a few) – also apply to the brain’s functioning.  Some of the results of this, in the brain as in the other systems, are that “very small perturbations can cause large effects or no effect at all” and that “despite the appearance of tranquility and stability over long periods, perpetual change is a defining feature.”

Buzsáki’s analysis emphasizes the distinguishing characteristic of such systems: emergence of a higher level of organization through “reciprocal causality,” which he describes as follows:

emergence through self-organization has two directions.  The upward direction is the local-to-global causation, through which novel dynamics emerge.  The downward direction is a global-to-local determination, whereby a global order parameter ‘enslaves’ the constituents and effectively governs local interactions.  There is no supervisor or agent that causes order; the system is self-organized.  The spooky thing here, of course, is that while the parts do cause the behavior of the whole, the behavior of the whole also constrains the behavior of its parts according to a majority rule; it is a case of circular causation.  Crucially, the cause is not one or the other but is embedded in the configuration of relations.

Buzsáki explains how this dynamic leads to that special combination of flexibility and robustness that our minds possess, whereby we seem to experience both stability and continual change at the same time.  Brain dynamics, he states, are in “a state of ‘self-organized criticality.’”  As such, the dynamics of the cerebral cortex display “metastability,” whereby in some cases the smallest perturbation can cause a major shift in the patterns of neuronal firing, and in other cases that firing can return to its previous patterns even after receiving large perturbations.

Buzsáki notes that such self-organized systems generally demonstrate a power law distribution, which leads to the inevitability of “rare but extremely large events.”  Here, he sees an exception to the general rule in the case of the normal brain, arguing that “such unusually large events never occur” because the balancing “dynamics of excitation and inhibition guard against such unexpected events.”  However, I wonder if that’s the case.  I know that, usually, when Buzsáki and other neuroscientists are considering these uniquely synchronized events, they’re thinking of the pathological synchrony of, for example, an epileptic seizure.  But what if they consider a highly infrequent synchrony between different brain systems that usually remain asynchronous?  Most of us have experienced rare moments in our lives where the normal balancing metastable dynamics are suddenly blown away.  For each of us, these moments will be totally unique, but in typical cases they might take the form a feeling of spiritual transcendence, of extreme love or anguish, a moment of enlightenment or of utter despair.  In many cases, these experiences can have such high valence that they can shift the previously metastable patterns of our brain into a new attractor manifold.  In more common parlance, these moments can profoundly affect our values and behavior for the rest of our lives.  I believe that this is an area that could profitably be explored by the methodology Buzsáki lays out in his book.

More generally, in examining the implications of the brain’s power law dynamics, Buzsáki ventures into the parallels between brain dynamics and other externally generated patterns exhibiting the same power-law distributions, such as music.  Buzsáki speculates that

Perhaps what makes music fundamentally different from (white) noise for the observer is that music has temporal patterns that are tuned to the brain’s ability to detect them because it is another brain that generates these patterns.

This speculation has in fact been empirically supported by physicists Hsü & Hsü who have identified a scale-independent fractal geometry in the music of Bach and Mozart.[1] But I wonder if the implications go much farther than this.  Supposing it’s the power law distribution itself that resonates with the brain, rather than the fact that “it is another brain that generates these patterns”?  In this case, might we consider the rhythms of the brain as a fundamental source of esthetic appreciation?  Do we, in fact, find nature so beautiful because at a foundational level, the self-organizing complexity of the brain responds to the analogous patterning that it perceives around it?

Tropical mollusk shell: an example of the intrinsic beauty of self-organized systems

Beauty is traditionally defined as “unity-in-variety,” as “that mysterious unity that the parts have with the whole.”[2] This description sounds remarkably similar to the self-organized reciprocal causality of complex adaptive systems referred to above.  In an interesting analysis, biologists Solé & Goodwin describe Hans Meinhardt’s research on tropical mollusk shells, demonstrating the generic order intrinsic in natural patterns.  The pigment patterns in mollusks, they tell us, “provide one of the most beautiful and convincing demonstrations of constraint arising from intrinsic self-organizing principles of biological pattern formation.”[3] Could this perceived beauty in fact be a case of the human mind, an emergent product of self-organized dynamics, recognizing an external manifestation of those very same dynamics?

Over a thousand years ago, Chang-Tsai, one of the founders of the Neo-Confucian movement, made a famous statement that resounded with future generations of philosophers:  “What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.”[4] Could it be that Chang-Tsai and György Buzsáki are in fact exploring the same reality, a thousand years apart?


[1] Hsu, K. J., and Hsu, A. (1991). “Self-similarity of the “1/f noise” called music.” PNAS, 88(April 1991), 3507-3509.

[2] Garcia-Rivera, A., Graves, M., and Neumann, C. (2009). “Beauty in the Living World.” Zygon, 44(2:June 2009), 243-263.

[3] Solé, R., and Goodwin, B. (2000). Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, New York: Basic Books.

[4] Quoted by Ching, J. (2000). The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, New York: Oxford University Press.

A Global Ethic for the 21st Century

The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive On a Volatile Earth

By Dianne Dumanoski

New York: Crown Publishing Group.  2009.

There’s something even more fundamental going on in our world than climate change.  While the world focuses its attention on geopolitical power struggles over approaches to global warming, and the American media gives credence to those who attack the science of climate change to score cheap political points, something far more profound is taking place in our world below the level of public discourse.

This is the crucial point made by award-winning journalist Dianne Dumanoski in The End of the Long Summer.  In the second half of the 20th century, Dumanoski tells us, we passed “a fundamental turning point in the relationship between humans and the Earth, arguably the biggest step since human mastery of fire.”  Our modern civilization emerged as “a global-scale force capable of redirecting Earth’s history.”  The implications of this are enormous, as she describes:

The consequences are not limited to global warming, nor are weather extremes the first evidence of our new status.  Accelerating climate change signals a far deeper problem – the growing human burden on all of the fundamental planetary processes that together make up a single, self-regulating Earth.

And just as the problem is far deeper than global warming, so the solution will require changes in our behavior that go way beyond cuts in carbon emissions.  The changes that are needed go right to heart of our sense of who we are as human beings and our fundamental relationship with the natural world.  “This modern culture,” states Dumanoski, “is not the only or best way of being human… Our civilization is profoundly at odds with the world we now inhabit.”  If we don’t change “the obsolete ideas and practices that underlie our culture, our civilization surely won’t survive.”

Dumanoski’s viewpoint might not win votes in an election, but it’s shared by other thinkers who have watched with alarm as our society accelerates into an unsustainable trajectory.  Before his death last year, the environmental theologian Thomas Berry wrote how “The violence already done to the Earth is on a scale beyond acceptability… We are into a new historical situation.”[1] Berry pointed out how this devastation is normative for our Western culture:

the truly remarkable aspect of all this is that what is happening is not being done in violation of anything in Western cultural commitments, but in fulfillment of those commitments as they are now understood… Our Western culture long ago abandoned its integral relation with the planet on which we live.[2]

And you certainly don’t need a theological perspective to see the magnitude of our predicament.  Biologist Paul Ehrlich writes how we have “permitted enlargement of the scale of the human enterprise to the point that it is destroying the life-support systems on which all our lives depend,” and that as a result this “may be heading us toward the worst catastrophe in the history of Homo sapiens.”[3]

Dumanoski shows how our current crisis is the result of some deep historical drivers.  She points out the uniqueness of Western civilization’s approach to the natural world, characterized by its quest for domination:

While all human societies have possessed and exercised the cultural capacity to shape the world, in the modern era we have pursued power and control – abetted by fossil fuels, science, and industry – with an aggressive intensity that makes our civilization unique.

As I describe in my blog, The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I believe that Dumanoski is in fact describing one of the most glaring results of an imbalance within our collective consciousness, one that has led to a view of our human nature as something apart from – and superior to – the natural world.   Dumanoski sees Francis Bacon (1561-1626) as the prophet of the new power-oriented approach to the natural world, a view that’s consistent with most historical interpretations.  But she also traces how this desacralization of nature became imprinted in the Western mindset, quoting Robert Boyle, a pioneer of the Scientific Revolution, on his desire to “banish any reverence for nature”:

The veneration wherewith men are imbued for what they call nature has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God.

The depth of this cultural bias, and the severity of the global crisis that has ensued, means that some of the more comforting proposed solutions are really not viable, attractive as they may appear.  On this topic, Dumanoski is refreshingly and unusually candid in exposing some of the prevalent myths.  She attacks the arguments of Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow that “our ingenuity will allow the economy to find endless substitutes for depleted resources so ‘the world can, in effect, get along without natural resources,’” showing how he and other economists are “strangely untethered from physical reality.”

She also points out the inadequacies of the “stewardship” viewpoint towards the natural world.  At first blush, the notion of “environmental stewardship” seems benign enough: we humans have a responsibility, along with our great intellectual powers, to act as “stewards” of nature, taking care of it for the next generation.   [Click here for a typical example of this approach.]  But, as Dumanoski points out, this idea “loses traction on the planetary scale.”  It gives us a false sense of security, implying that “we are in a position to take charge of nature and it thus mistakes our position vis-à-vis the larger world.”  Dumanoski convincingly argues that, in fact, we’re too far gone for this approach to work.  We need, instead, to “find creative ways to adjust and redesign our civilization.”

So what is, in fact, the way forward, if we accept this bleak prognosis of our current state?  Dumanoski calls for a “new cultural map” to orient us as we as we grapple with a “profound ‘human crisis’ that cuts to the heart of our civilization.”  Essential to this new orientation is moving away from the dualistic mindset that has entranced our civilization for the past two thousand years.  Here’s how Dumanoski describes it:

If humans are to have any chance at a long-term future, we must give up the persistent and pervasive notion that we do not really belong to this imperfect Earth of mortal creatures.  We must abandon the conviction, which also has deep roots in the Western tradition, that we are some sort of special creation, mortal gods, noble beings in exile.  We must wake from dangerous dreams of escape from the human condition, of emancipation from Earth.  We must reconcile ourselves to the truth that death, suffering, and finitude go with the territory as much as life, joy, and beauty…

This, Dumanoski points out, is both “a journey of self-understanding and a matter of survival.”  Once again, although her diagnosis won’t score high in the opinion polls, she’s in good company with some of the profoundest thinkers of our times.  Environmentalist advocate James Gustave Speth writes of the need for a “new consciousness” in meeting our environmental challenges:

Many of our deepest thinkers and many of those most familiar with the scale of the challenges we face have concluded that the transitions required can be achieved only in the context of what I will call the rise of a new consciousness.  For some, it is a spiritual awakening – a transformation of the human heart.  For others it is a more intellectual process of coming to see the world anew and deeply embracing the emerging ethic of the environment and the old ethic of what it means to love thy neighbor as thyself.[4]

Many people might wonder, at this juncture, what is the form of spiritual awakening required, and how would this translate into our daily practices and values.  In some recent posts, I’ve suggested that we can learn some profound lessons from the Neo-Confucian thought tradition from a thousand years ago, which sees the spiritual aspects of our existence as inextricably linked with the material world, leading to a sense of the interconnectivity of mind and nature.

Perhaps, by arriving at a spirituality which is not at odds with science but actually arises from a scientific view of the natural world, we might become convinced that “our lives are inseparable from our environment, our species, our relations with the stream of all that exists.”  Then, perhaps, we have a chance of developing an ethic for the 21st century, one that might just help us to achieve the survival of the most valuable aspects of our civilization.


[1] Berry, T. (1999). The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future, New York: Three Rivers Press, 108-9

[2] Berry, op. cit.,146

[3] Ehrlich, P. R. (2000/2002). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect, New York: Penguin, 321.

[4] Speth, J. G. (2008). The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, New Haven: Yale University Press, 199-200.

Exploring the Neural Correlates of Wu-Wei.

Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China

By Edward Slingerland

New York: Oxford University Press.  2003.

If the Tao is all around us in the natural world, what does it actually do?  In the monotheistic worldview, it’s all rather straightforward.  We have a command-and-control God who gets things going in the universe with direct, purposive action.  God said, “Let there be light!”… and there was light.  But early Chinese thought had no conception of a creator God.  There was the Tao, a “whirling emptiness” which was nevertheless “the ancestor of the ten thousand things.”  In stark contrast to God’s purposeful command, the Tao offers us the paradox of wu-wei: “Act by no-action, Then nothing is not in order.”[1]

Classical Chinese scholar, Edward Slingerland, translates wu-wei as “effortless action” and describes how this metaphor served “as a central spiritual ideal” of the great early Chinese philosophers.  Along with such great Chinese scholars as Joseph Needham and Benjamin Schwartz, Slingerland believes that the simple translation of wu-wei as “non-action” is inadequate to describe the concept.  Schwartz had previously suggested “non-purposive action or behavior”[2] and Needham offered: “‘refraining from activity contrary to Nature’, i.e. from insisting on going against the grain of things, from trying to make materials perform functions for which they are unsuitable.”[3] Slingerland’s “effortless action” seems consistent with these interpretations, but shifts the attention a little more to the dynamics within an individual consciousness rather than, for example, Needham’s focus on mankind’s relationship with the natural world.

This shift in focus leads Slingerland to identify what he sees as a crucial paradox in East Asian thought centered on the wu-wei concept, one that extended over more than a thousand years, through the development of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and into Neo-Confucian debates of the Song Dynasty.  The paradox goes like this.  The great Taoist works, such as the Laozi (Tao Te Ching) or the Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu), advocate a wu-wei approach to the world, with the Laozi’s view of ideal human nature as a natural uncarved piece of wood, and the Zhuangzi’s memorable descriptions of butchers, cicada-catchers and swimmers so involved in what they’re doing that they lose their self-consciousness, becoming one with their activity.  But if wu-wei is so “natural,” then how did we humans ever lose it, and how can we get back to that state without going against the very nature of wu-wei? Here’s how Slingerland summarizes it:

If, in fact, we are naturally good in a ‘so-of-itself,’ no-effort fashion, why are we not good already?  If the Laozian soteriological[4] path is so effortless and spontaneous, why do we have to be told to pursue it? … Laozi urges us to behaviorally ‘do wu-wei’ and to cognitively ‘grasp oneness,’ while at the same time he systematically condemns doing and grasping… The fact that we are not already … open to the Way means that we need to somehow render ourselves receptive, and Zhuangzi is thus forced to supplement his effortlessness and unself-consciousness metaphors with references to hard work and training…

Slingerland examines each of the great early Chinese philosophers from this perspective, pulling open the text to expose the underlying paradox.  In what was for me a particularly enlightening section, he demonstrates the conceptual relationship between the Confucian philosophy of Mencius and the Taoism of Laozi, showing how Mencius’ favorite agricultural metaphor transforms the Laozian sense of wu-wei as “pristine nature” into an agricultural vision of wu-wei as “appropriate cultivation.”

Slingerland concludes that “the paradox of wu-wei is a genuine paradox and that any ‘solution’ to the problem it presents will therefore necessarily be plagued by superficial and structural difficulties.”  While I agree with his view of the centrality of the wu-wei paradox in traditional Chinese thought, I believe it may be possible to make some headway in this paradox by applying recent findings in neuroscience to a cognitive view of human development, and considering the notion of wu-wei in terms of what I call “democracy of consciousness.”

In another blog, The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve argued that the symbolizing and conceptual functions mediated by the prefrontal cortex (pfc) have led to a “tyranny” of those capabilities over other aspects of human consciousness.  This view can be seen as a modern formulation of the Taoist narrative of the loss of our original state of nature, that primordial time when “in the Age of Perfect Te, men lived in common with birds and beasts, and were on terms of equality with all creatures, as forming one family.”[5] Under this approach, the Laozian view that:

From knowing to not knowing,
This is superior.
From not knowing to knowing,
This is sickness.[6]

may be seen as a repudiation of pfc-mediated forms of symbolic and conceptual cognition (which I’ve termed “conceptual consciousness”) and an idealization of what I call “animate consciousness”, the pre-symbolic form of consciousness that we share with other animals.  Similarly, the rise of the “tyranny of the pfc” that I’ve traced through agriculture, monotheist dualism and the scientific revolution, could be paraphrased in these lines from the Laozi:

Therefore when Tao is lost, then there is te.
When te is lost, then there is jen (humanity).
When jen is lost, then there is i (righteousness).
When i is lost, then there is li (propriety).[7]

The trappings of culture, the forces of technology, cumulatively come to dominate mankind’s original animate consciousness, imposing a different kind of conceptualized order on society and in each of our minds.

However, my approach differs from Laozi in that it’s clear that there’s “no going home.”  Even if, according to some romantics, the hunter-gatherer way of life was superior to ours in many ways, that’s now irrelevant.  We live in an age when both the positive and negative effects of our pfc-dominated culture pervade every aspect of our existence.  The way forward, then, is for us to achieve a “democracy of consciousness” by regaining a harmony between our animate and conceptual consciousness.

This is where my approach meets Slingerland’s “paradox of wu-wei.”  When Zhuangzi describes the perfect harmony of the cicada-catcher or Butcher Ding, I believe he’s capturing moments of “democracy of consciousness”, when the functions of the pfc are perfectly aligned with those of our animate consciousness.  Slingerland points out the paradox here that Butcher Ding “apparently had to train for years and pass through several levels of attainment before he was finally able to follow his spiritual desires.”  I agree.  But modern neuroscience shows us that this paradox is encapsulated in the biology of our brains.  When you are learning a new routine, whether it’s driving, playing music, or walking into a restaurant, your pfc is fully engaged.  You are attentive to every move you make, thinking about it, making an effort, measuring it against pre-conceived rules of conduct.  Your self-awareness is at its height.  Wu-wei is nowhere to be found.

However, when you have mastered your activity, your pfc takes a back seat, only intervening if something unexpected occurs.  A recent neuroimaging study observes that, as familiarity with a particular activity increases, the pre-motor cortex begins to take over from the pfc:

Evidence suggests that the PFC is more critical for new learning than for familiar routines… Human imaging studies report a decrease in blood flow to the PFC as a task become more familiar and greater blood flow to the dorsal premotor cortex (PMC) than the PFC when subjects are performing familiar versus novel tasks.  Also, with increasing task familiarity, there is a relative shift in blood flow from areas associated with focal attention, such as the PFC, to motor regions.  Therefore, it may be that the PFC is primarily involved in new learning, but with familiarity, rules become more strongly established in motor system structures.[8]

I suggest that this study, and others like it, may be describing the neural correlates of Zhuangzi’s wu-wei.  Another recent study examines the neural activity predominant in meditation conducted by novices and those at more advanced stages of practice.  Again, in early stages, a practitioner requires greater mental effort to direct his/her wandering thoughts, which “requires strong executive function and capacity that heavily involves the PFC.” At intermediate stages, the anterior cingulate cortex (a brain area involved in self-regulation) “maintain[s] the balance of cognitive control and autonomic activity.”  For an advanced practitioner, however, an effortless state of wu-wei is achieved.  Here’s how it’s described:

In later meditation stages, the practitioner does not need strong effort and uses only effortless experience to maintain the meditative state. When deeply in this state, practitioners totally forget the body, the self and the environment. In this stage, the ANS [autonomic nervous system] is in control…[9]

I would propose that the “effortless experience” described here is the same wu-wei state as Slingerland’s “effortless action”.  Finally, in what is perhaps the most enlightening recent study on the subject, an analysis of the neural correlates of jazz improvisation shows a shift towards wu-wei in the cognitive experience of jazz musicians – what I view as a harmonization of animate and conceptual consciousness.  The study notes a deactivation of the lateral pfc regions that “are thought to provide a cognitive framework within which goal-directed behaviors are consciously monitored, evaluated and corrected” and which are active “during effortful problem-solving, conscious self-monitoring and focused attention.”  The authors of the study describe their findings in terms which, again, echo Slingerland’s “effortless action”:

Whereas activation of the lateral regions appears to support self-monitoring and focused attention, deactivation may be associated with defocused, free-floating attention that permits spontaneous unplanned associations, and sudden insights or realizations. The idea that spontaneous composition relies to some degree on intuition, the ‘‘ability to arrive at a solution without reasoning’’, may be consistent with the dissociated pattern of prefrontal activity we observed. That is, creative intuition may operate when an attenuated DLPFC [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] no longer regulates the contents of consciousness.[10]

The subjects of this study were “highly skilled professional jazz musicians”.  We can imagine, based on the earlier studies mentioned, that novice jazz musicians would have shown much greater pfc-activation along with their greater effort.

Based on these analyses, I suggest that we can usefully correlate different levels of pfc-activation to different aspects of wu-wei that Slingerland identifies in Laozi, Mencius and Zhuangzi.

The Laozian wu-wei correlates with what I call animate consciousness, equivalent to the pre-symbolic kind perception experienced by an infant.  In a grown person, our experiences are mediated by the pfc so automatically that it’s difficult to discern this pre-symbolic moment of awareness, but experienced practitioners of meditation can describe it.  Here is a description of that pre-symbolic, pre-pfc moment by a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher:

When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it.  That is a state of awareness.  Ordinarily, this state is short-lived…   It takes place just before you start thinking about it – before your mind says, ‘Oh, it’s a dog.’  That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is mindfulness.  In that brief flashing mind-moment you experience a thing as an un-thing.  You experience a softly flowing moment of pure experience that is interlocked with the rest of reality, not separate from it…[11]

By contrast, as Slingerland points out, the Mencian view of wu-wei involves “appropriate” human cultivation of experience.  In this view, the pfc’s functions of identifying, establishing rules, and promoting appropriate action are considered part of the natural, wu-wei human experience.  Just as it’s “natural” for an infant to spend their first two and a half years formulating the symbolic pfc-mediated network required to understand native language, so the Mencian view would place the societal manifestations of this function – language, community, agriculture – as wu-wei, the effortless activity of a mature human consciousness.

The Mencian view, though, describes another ideal context – that of a stable agricultural society where man and nature co-exist in harmony – which is almost as far removed from our world as the Laozian “state of nature.”  To use the Mencius agricultural harvest metaphor, mankind has been tugging on the naturally growing shoots for so long that we’re in danger of pulling up the entire plant from the ground, having to replace it with our own genetically engineered variety.

I suggest that the Zhuangzian approach to wu-wei, in contrast to both Laozi and Mencius, describes a path that’s directly relevant to our individual and societal conditions in the 21st century.  Rather than reject the pfc’s involvement in human experience, the Zhuangzian approach, supported by the neuroimaging findings above, advocates the full utilization of pfc functions – willpower, application, attention – to arrive at a stage where the pfc can take a back seat, and a harmonization of consciousness becomes available.  This dynamic can be extended beyond the specific aspects of life analyzed in the neuroimaging studies to all aspects of our lives, indeed to the general way we choose to lead our lives.

From this viewpoint, Slingerland’s original “wu-wei paradox” doesn’t go away, but it’s transformed into a descriptor of the pfc’s dynamics within our consciousness:  We can use the very power of our pfc functions – self-awareness, goal identification, willpower – to reduce the pfc’s “tyranny” over the other aspects of our consciousness.  I think this may be what Zhuangzi means when he says “Words are for holding ideas, but when one has got the idea, one need no longer think about the words.”[12]

It might take a great effort to get there, but by utilizing rather than rejecting our unique pfc-mediated functions, we each have the capability within us to arrive at a place of wu-wei, to shift the balance of power within our own minds and achieve our own democracy of consciousness.


[1] Chen, E. M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House. TTC 3 & 4, pp. 58, 60.

[2] Schwartz, B. I. (1985). The World of Thought in Ancient China, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard University Press,  188.

[3] Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II. London: Cambridge University Press.

[4] “Soteriology” generally refers to the religious study of salvation.

[5] Cited by Chen, E. M. (1973). “The Meaning of Te in the Tao Te Ching: An Examination of the Concept of Nature in Chinese Taoism.” Philosophy East and West, 23(4), 457-470.

[6] Chen, E. M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, op. cit. 215: TTC 71

[7] Chen, op. cit. 146: TTC 38.

[8] Muhammad, R., Wallis, J. D., and Miller, E. K. (2006). “A Comparison of Abstract Rules in the Prefrontal Cortex, Premotor Cortex, Inferior Temporal Cortex, and Striatum.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 974-989.

[9] Tang, Y.-Y., and Posner, M. I. (2009). “Attention training and attention state training.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(5: May 2009).

[10] Limb, C. J., and Braun, A. R. (2008). “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLoS ONE, 3(2: February 2008), e1679.  It should be noted that another part of the pfc, called the fronto-polar cortex, was active during the improvisation.  This area is thought to be related to integrative functions, and is distinct from the “effortful” planning functions of the lateral pfc described in the post.

[11] Gunaratana, V. H. (1991). Mindfulness in Plain English, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

[12] Quoted by Fung, Y.-L. (1948/1976). A Short History of Chinese Philosophy: A Systematic Account of Chinese Thought From Its Origins to the Present Day, New York: The Free Press.

Crossing the Complexity Barrier

Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Genealogy of Natural Selection

Depew, D. J., and Weber, B. H. ,

Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. (1996).

The study of complexity and self-organization in living organisms offers a powerful, new way to understand the natural world.  It provides a profound and serious alternative to the reductionist program which has dominated biology since the early part of the 20th century.  But what does it imply for Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the bulwark of modern biological thought?  Over the past two decades, a number of researchers have shown how natural selection and complexity theory, far from being rivals, are in fact “marriage partners.”[1]

Of these studies, the one that I’ve found most rewarding is Darwinism Evolving by Depew & Weber, which gives an in-depth narrative of the thought currents around Darwin’s theory, from before Darwin all the way to the present day, using the narrative to establish and support their own approach.

They begin with an interesting take on Darwinian theory, describing how it developed in the context of both the political and scientific framework of the mid-19th century.  Politically, Depew and Weber show how Adam Smith’s view of the “invisible hand” could be powerfully translated from economics to biology.  In both cases, individuals struggle to do what’s best for them, and by doing so, blindly become agents in the natural laws of capitalism and evolution.  Similarly, the “gradualist” approach that Darwin favored in describing the process of natural selection, fit well with the prevailing political ethos of Victorian England.  They describe a chemist named W.R. Grove addressing a scientific meeting in 1866, telling his compatriots how: “Happily in this country practical experience has taught us to improve rather than remodel; we follow the law of nature and avoid cataclysms.”

Depew & Weber are not the first to note this political context (in fact they tell us how Karl Marx picked up on it as early as 1862.)  But they probably break some new ground in their linkage of Darwin’s ideas to developing theories in physics, arguing that:

… the Darwinian research tradition, while successfully resisting reduction to or incorporation within physics, has from the beginning used explanatory models taken from physics to articulate its core idea of natural selection.

They show how Newton’s laws formed a “generalized model for describing and explaining phenomena in fields beyond physics, even social systems” in the nineteenth century, and they offer a fascinating analysis of how the laws of statistical mechanics developed by Maxwell and Boltzmann had a profound effect on later, post-Darwinian evolutionary thinking.

This thesis really hits its stride when Depew & Weber follow the interactions between evolutionary thought and the second law of thermodynamics, which states that processes in a system will tend towards entropy.  They give an account of the strange life of Ronald Fisher, the first person to formally link evolution with the second law, with his view that “just as the world moves downhill by the exploitation of energetic gradients, so it moves uphill by the exploitation of fitness gradients.”  With a clear distaste for how evolutionary theories can be manipulated to support ethical idiosyncrasies, they note how “as his classmates went off to the slaughter of World War I, Fisher was writing in the Eugenical Review that although morality and aesthetics are both grounded in sexual selection, those who rightly rule in a society know that beauty is a higher value than morality.”

The linkage of evolution with the second law of thermodynamics becomes more rigorous and powerful as the story continues.  We’re introduced to Alfred Lotka’s thermodynamic theory of evolution which can be summarized as:

Evolution proceeds in such direction as to make the total energy flux through the system a maximum compatible with the constraints… In accord with this observation is the principle that, in the struggle for existence, the advantage must go to those organisms whose energy-capturing devices are most efficient in directing available energy into channels favorable to the preservation of the species.

Depew & Weber tell us how “with his vision of the unity of physics, chemistry, and biology, Lotka proposed this as a fourth law of thermodynamics.”

Perhaps the most important milestone in this narrative is the “seminal little book that appeared in 1944”, by quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger called What is Life?, which threw “considerable sweetness, as well as light” on the subject.  Schrödinger’s breakthrough was to contrast an organic or open system with the universe as a whole, arguing that “the second law requires only that the universe as a whole must show an increase in entropy.  Eddies of order, or what Schrödinger called ‘negentropy’, could be sustained in the great flow of ever-increasing entropy.”

So life can be seen as a continual struggle against entropy, whereby cells, organisms or ecosystems take energy from the broader universe, organize it in ways that assist them (i.e. metabolism), and dissipate the waste back out.  This is why Ilya Prigogine, the next great thinker on this subject, refers to organisms as “dissipative structures.”

This narrative enables one to see current theories of complexity and self-organization within a full historical context.  Those who are “marrying” self-organization to evolution are, in fact, working on the fourth or fifth generation of matchmaking.  The difference now, as Weber and Depew point out, is that the new science of complexity has developed theoretical tools and data-driven applications that fundamentally change the project.  As they put it:

The first lesson to be learned from the new dynamics is that the world contains more novelty, diversity, and complexity than we had assumed…  Crossing the complexity barrier, accordingly, calls for … radical revisions in how scientific theories are to be analyzed and in how they explain when they are applied to problems… [I]t is not just physics and biology that must change to accommodate this fact but philosophies of science, too.

The implications of “crossing the complexity barrier” are far-reaching, and Depew & Weber explore some of these directions.  For example, a thermodynamically-based view of evolution leads to an understanding of evolution as occurring on multiple levels rather than solely on the individual organism (or as espoused in recent decades, the individual gene.)  It also supersedes the “competition” metaphor in traditional evolutionary narrative, as Depew and Weber explain:

Organisms will, on this account, be construed as informed patterns of thermodynamic flow.  Those populations will be fittest that best enhance the autocatalytic behavior of the reward loops in which they participate.  One advantage of this notion is that it makes it possible to contextualize natural selection to the wider array of processes in which it occurs, and to project a vision of ecological communities in which cooperation becomes as characteristic as competition, or indeed inseparably linked to it…

Not surprisingly, Depew & Weber come out strongly against reductionist thinking in general, and even more fiercely against Richard Dawkins’ particular style of that thinking, describing how he “invests his metaphors with disturbing semantic reverberations that harken back to Enlightenment themes”, giving the choice between being pawns of our genes” or “of a tyrannical Calvinist God.”  As I’ve described elsewhere, I’m in strong agreement with their view of Dawkins’ “false choice,” and the inherent limitations of thought offered by reductionism, which they describe as follows:

The problem has been that when everything is antecedently considered to be ‘nothing but’ atoms in the void, many real, important, and interesting phenomena tend to get explained away, brushed aside, eliminated, or, worse, crammed into the wrong explanatory box… Indeed… the reducing impulse undermines fairly huge tracts of experience.

The dynamical systems perspective is far from universally accepted, even by those who challenge conventional gene-centered evolutionary approaches.  Here is a critique from David Sloan Wilson, known for championing multi-level selection theory:

Embedded in the thermodynamics talk is the naive assumption that adaptation at level x … automatically leads to adaptation at level x + 1… It is… discouraging that ‘‘the emerging sciences of complexity’’ are so isolated from evolutionary biology that the mistakes of the 1940s and 1950s are being repeated.[2]

I disagree with Wilson about the “automatic” assumption.  I think the “complexity” part of modern systems thought leads to the understanding that there’s nothing “automatic” about the dynamics leading to evolution, or for that matter, leading to the life of any given organism.  But this type of dismissal, even from advanced thinkers such as Wilson, shows how far the scientific community still has to go in crossing the complexity barrier, and participating in that “marriage” of natural selection and complexity theory.


[1] See Kosse, K. (2001). “Some Regularities in Human Group Formation and the Evolution of Societal Complexity.” Complexity, 6(1 (2001)), 60-64, who calls for a “marriage between Darwinian theory and the emerging science of complexity.”

[2] Wilson, D. S. (1997). “Biological Communities as Functionally Organized Units.” Ecology, 78(7), 2018-2024.

Carry It On

Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind

By Evan Thompson

Cambridge: Harvard University Press

In a couple of recent blog posts[1], I’ve talked about how life-science needs to expand its reductionist agenda to approach the mysteries of life, enabling us to bridge the chasm between science and spirituality.  After recently completing Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life, I believe that he could be one of the leading thinkers in getting us there.

Thompson was one of the co-authors, along with Francisco Varela, of a ground-breaking book published in 1993 called The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, which explored some of the areas of overlap between cognitive science and Buddhist psychology.  Varela, who introduced (with Humberto Maturana) the idea of autopoiesis[2], was viewed by many as a thought-leader in this area, until he tragically died in mid-career in 2001.  In his current book, Thompson is carrying on the thought-processes he began with Varela[3], and taking them into expansive new areas.

At the core of the book is the idea that life is a self-organized, self-creating system.  This central theme is then applied to different aspects of life, such as consciousness, evolution and cellular dynamics, to provide a coherent view of how these seemingly disparate areas are in fact all integrated.

A key phrase Thompson has coined to describe his particular view of life’s self-organized nature is “dynamic co-emergence.”  This is crucially important for contrasting living systems with other complex, self-organized non-living processes, such as a candle flame or a whirlpool.  Here’s how Thompson explains it:

An autonomous system, such as a cell or multicellular organism, is not merely self-maintaining, like a candle flame; it is also self-producing… In the single-cell, autopoietic form of autonomy, a membrane-bounded, metabolic network produces the metabolites that constitute both the network itself and the membrane that permits the network’s bounded dynamics.  Other autonomous systems have different sorts of self-constructing processes…  Whether the system is a cell, immune network, nervous system, insect colony, or animal society, what emerges is a unity with its own self-producing identity.

The reason why Thompson calls this “dynamic co-emergence” is that:

… the whole is constituted by the relations of the parts, and the parts are constituted by the relations they bear to one another in the whole.  Hence, the parts do not exist in advance, prior to the whole, as independent entities that retain their identity in the whole.  Rather, part and whole co-emerge and mutually specify each other.

Thompson traces a tradition of Western thought, going back to Aristotle, which entertained this approach to understanding life.  I call it the “moonlight tradition”, because its illumination was so overwhelmed by the bright glare of Platonic dualism, that it’s just about invisible to most conventional examinations of Western thought; but when you look at the world by its light, you see things in a new and beautiful way, in the same way that a plain, familiar landscape becomes entrancing by moonlight.

Following this line of thought, Thompson shows how Kant arrived at a view of “natural purpose” for living organisms which is only now being re-discovered by scientists applying the mathematical tools of complexity theory that were not available to Kant.

These tools are, however, available to Thompson, and he makes excellent use of them in exploring the implications of “dynamic co-emergence” to central aspects of our lives.  A key concept from complexity theory is that of an “attractor”: a relatively stable, dynamic state to which a complex system converges over time.  Every time you turn on the water in a sink and see the pattern it makes as it circles the drain, you’re seeing an attractor.  It’s both stable and dynamic.  It keeps changing, but only within certain parameters.  Open the faucet more, and after a few chaotic moments, the water will settle into a new attractor.[4] Attractors can describe the changes in state taken by the kinds of self-organizing, dynamically co-emergent systems that comprise life as we know it.

When you apply the concept of attractors to the most complex systems of all, such as our minds, this leads to another concept known as “metastability”, where things appear relatively stable even as they keep fluctuating from one area to another within an attractor.  This dynamic, Thompson explains, “permits a flexible repertoire of global states without the system becoming trapped in any one particular state”.  Increasingly, leading neuroscientists are applying this analysis to understand how complex patterns of neuronal firings can lead in our brains to the state of consciousness.

Thompson follows this logic on inexorably, exploring how the cellular complexities of dynamics such as metabolism lead to a sense of purpose in even a single-celled organism.  As this microcosm of value is then traced up the ladder of complexity all the way to human cognition, we see how intentionality turns into what is known as “valence” (attraction/repulsion, like/dislike, etc.) and ultimately into what we define as values.

Similarly, we can trace how the short-term dynamics of the attractor of our consciousness lead to feelings, then to moods, and ultimately personality.  From this perspective, we can begin to see personality as a kind of metastable phase-state within which our emotions and moods play out.  But always, the emphasis is on the dynamic co-emergence of the parts and the whole.  So, in this example, your feelings and moods are continually re-forming your personality at the margin, which then impacts those very feelings.  You, therefore, are a self-created and self-creating entity!

Thompson champions a fundamentally different, and potentially liberating, view of ourselves and the world around us, in stark contrast to the reductionist, deterministic view espoused by the life-science mainstream.  In a powerful invective, Thompson witheringly critiques Richard Dawkins’ metaphor of the “selfish gene,” arguing that “it is little more than a metaphor that masquerades as a theoretical concept and… leads to a misleading picture of the nature of possible explanations in molecular biology.” I found this section very convincing, and feel it should be required reading for anyone who remains committed to the “genocentric” view of life.

But what metaphor could we use to replace the current “genetic program” view of the natural world?  Thompson proposes a metaphor that he calls “laying down a path,” implying that “there is no separation between plan and executed action.”  This is one area where I think there’s a lot more to be done.  Personally, I believe that the “music” metaphor may be the most powerful candidate to replace “genetic programming.”  Later in the book, Thompson does describe evolution in term of dance:

Like two partners in a dance who bring forth each other’s movements, organism and environment enact each other through their structural coupling.

However, I think there’s a lot more play in the metaphor than that.  One writer who has embraced this as a central metaphor is Denis Noble, author of The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes, a book that I’d recommend as a great complement to Thompson.  The power of the music metaphor is that it incorporates all the complexities of dynamic co-emergence, and at the same time it plays havoc with the traditional “competition” metaphor so prevalent among genetic determinists.  Imagine a biologist from another planet watching an orchestra play and observing that “the violins must pursue the most successful adaptive strategy because there are so many of them.”

After centuries of its concealment in the twilight of the “moonlight tradition,” the application of mathematical rigor to a more holistic view of life has the potential to revolutionize the life sciences in the 21st century and beyond.  Thompson’s book does a great job of applying Varela’s insights further afield, and in doing so he’s “laying down” an important path for others to follow.


[1] Re-weaving the Rainbow and A False Choice: Reductionism or Dualism.

[2] Autopoiesis can be loosely defined as a definition of life as a system with a semi-permeable boundary produced by reactions within that boundary that simultaneously regenerate the components of the system: thus, it’s self-organizing and dynamically self-creating.

[3] Thompson writes in the Preface that the book was originally intended to be co-authored with Varela.

[4] Technically, this describes what’s called a chaotic or strange attractor, as opposed to a more predictable point attractor or limited cycle attractor.

Meaning Without “Truth”

Hansen, Daoist theory of human thoughtA Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation

By Chad Hansen

New York: Oxford University Press. (2000)

Chad Hansen claims he’s going to shake up traditional views on Chinese thought (even modern ones such as A.C. Graham and B.I. Schwartz).  Well, I’m not sure if he succeeded in that, and I found both Graham and Schwartz more accessible and clearer in their surveys of classical Chinese thinking.

Nevertheless, Hansen’s work was well worth the effort.  What I found most valuable is his approach to the linkage of thought and language.  Hansen takes a strong Whorfian approach (one which I agree with) in proposing that Chinese thought, as expressed in the underlying structures of their language, is different from Western thought in some fundamental ways.  For example, Greek and Indian (and all other Proto-Indo European sourced languages) “depend on the semantic concepts of meaning and truth.”  Chinese language and thought, on the other hand, are more relational.  Hansen makes an interesting contrast of Western and Chinese dictionary traditions.  In Western language, we “assume the notion of a meaning that the definition should express.  The Chinese dictionary tradition is more historical.  It collects different historical examples of use and lists possible character (or phrase) substitutes in each use.”

One of my central themes is that Western thought traditions emphasize what I call “conceptual consciousness” (pfc-dominated thought) over “animate consciousness”.  Hansen gives a great example of this thesis, when he explains how in Chinese, meaning is partly a function of tone.  In the West, we make a separation between the substance of what we say, and the tone in which we say it.  The substance is a function of the “objective truth” of the statement.  The tone… well, that’s the emotional, touchy-feely stuff of affect.  In Chinese, by contrast, there was never as clear a separation between conceptual and animate consciousness.  They were more integrated from the outset, and that shows itself in their inclination to incorporate tone into meaning.

Hansen gives a detailed descriptions of Mencius’ view of human nature expressed in a full-fledged plant analogy.  This is something important to me, and I’m grateful to him for his detail.  I believe that Mencius’ view of an organically growing human morality, linking the individual with the cosmos, offers a great deal to anyone trying to construct a global ethic for the 21st century, and also ties in closely with some aspects of modern evolutionary psychology, such as theories of “parochial altruism”.  In following up some of Hansen’s bibliography citations, I discovered a book put out in 2005 by Donald Munro, A Chinese Ethic for the New Century, which I’ll be really interested to follow up.

I’d recommend Hansen to people who have already read Schwartz’s The World of Thought in Ancient China and Graham’s Disputers of the Tao, and who want to add another linguistic-oriented perspective to their understanding.